Zonal defending: Problem or convenient excuse?

Posted by Rushian on October 5, 2004, 03:41:26 PM

In a fashion typical for most teams with new managers and turnover of playing staff, and without £100 mil to spend on international replacements, Liverpool under Rafael Benitez have struggled to perform consistently on the pitch. For every fine performance like the home wins over West Brom, Norwich and Monaco, there has been a disjointed, distracted, error-filled poor showing like the losses to United and Olympiakos, and the draw against Spurs.

New managers bring new systems, and one of Rafa’s innovations has been the lightning rod for much criticism from the supporters, the tactic of defending set-pieces by using zonal rather than man-to-man marking. Given that Liverpool have conceded far too many goals from set-pieces, two to Mikael Silvestre in the loss to United and the only goal in the loss to Olympiakos, at first glance it would appear that it is the zonal-marking concept which Rafa has tried to instill that is at fault. But as with so many first impressions and emotional conclusions, the truth behind the first impulse is a much more complicated one.

“They (or more damningly ‘we’) just aren’t used to it…”

This is the statement that appears at some point in the conversation in the pub, in the chat room surrounded by whatever alternative text obscenities the poster can get away with, or on message boards with slack monitors. The reference is to Rafa asking Liverpool’s players to zonal mark the opposition at set pieces, when they are “used” to man-marking.

There are many things wrong with this particular line of reasoning, but let’s start with the non-football bits first. Liverpool aren’t used to doing this, so they shouldn’t. Boiled down to its essence, this is the “logic” behind the criticism of Rafa’s zonal defending tactics.

In other words, we should have kept Gerrard Houllier.   If you follow the line of reasoning, such as it is, in the “not used to it” argument, this is where you end up. 

What Liverpool were used to doing was camping out on the 18 yard line and hoofing the ball forward at the earliest possible opportunity for the strikers to chase. I think it fair to point out that the individuals criticizing zonal defending at set-pieces are probably some of the same people singing the praises of the new pass-and-move attacking football which Rafa has tried, with success against West Brom, Norwich and Monaco in particular, to instill. How wonderful things would be if Rafa managed Liverpool like a game of Championship Manager; just programme the tactics, and voila, Premier League title. 

Reality, as we all know in our less emotional moments, is somewhat different. The changes Benitez is trying to make won’t all come at once, and some might not come off at all. Which creates a nice intro to the next point; that making a judgement about what works, or does not work, after ten competitive matches, including clean sheets against Graz, West Brom and Norwich, is thinking of the emotional rather than rational variety.

In the aftermath of the losses to United and Olympiakos, when the general despair and anger were at extremely high levels and all the talk is of losses to the Great Enemy or the collapse of the Champions League campaign, the instinct of a passionate supporter is to find a release for the frustration. I would submit that this is a large part of what is behind the attack on the zonal defending at set pieces. Three goals conceded, two losses, all goals scored at re-starts, new zonal defending system brought in by new manager, AHA! 

Hands up, you’ve been there, haven’t you?

What is very strange about the “not used to it” attacks on zonal defending is that British, and Premier League defenses in general, are exclusively of the flat-back four variety. In other words, they are zonal rather than man-marking systems. The same principles from zonal defending during open play are the very ones which apply during zonal defending at set-pieces. What those of the “not used to it” ilk seem to be saying is that the players don’t know how to defend in the way that has been popular in Britain since Doug Ellis was born; zonal defending is how to defend, if you believe in the proper British way of defending. What has inevitably happened is that mistakes have been made in “picking up” attacking players, or rather not picking them up, and these are mistakes that you see in open play every Saturday.   Because it is new to the players to defend in this manner at set-pieces, there are inevitably, and tragically, going to be some mistakes. But that does not indict the system as a failure in general.

Also, the “we’re not used to it” line of thought does not address the problem, it merely excuses it. What seems to be behind the fear of zonal marking is that the players won’t be able to understand it, so let’s just go back to that with which they are comfortable.

With this kind of attitude, it will be a very long season.

Rafa was brought in to change things, to shake the club from the torpor that had set in at the end of the Houllier years, and if he is to fulfill this mandate, there will be tactical demands placed on the players, demands which will force players outside their comfort zone before they are able to adapt to the changes.

Player development is how this is referred to in coaching manuals. This is on the whole a good thing, despite the inevitable hard times that always occur during the adaptation period. Benitez’s Valencia teams were tactically brilliant, flexible enough to change tactics mid-match as they imposed their will and control of the match on their opposition.

It would be quite nice to see a bit of this at Anfield.

Finally, a more interesting line of inquiry than the tired, “not used to it” model might be: Why does Rafa insist on zonal defending at set pieces?

The answer lies again in tactical considerations. If you defend set-pieces zonally, you have control over which defenders occupy certain parts of the pitch. This enables the placement of the better headers of the ball in the areas judged to be likely targets of the re-start, and also enables a team to keep its shape better, which might give rise to counter-attacking options on a change of possession. Defending man-to-man automatically takes the defending team out of its defensive shape until the set-piece has been defended, and it takes time to recover position after the set-piece has been cleared.

In many ways, the central issue seems to be control. It appears that Rafa’s preference for zonal defending lies in his desire to be in control of as much of the match as possible, or to deny his opposition the chances to control events. The new manager is a thinker and a tactician. In the past, this desire to establish control at matches has served El Jefe Benitez quite well.

Rafa’s Valencia teams were able to both defend zonally at set-pieces, in a very miserly manner, and also to possess the ball and move it quickly about the pitch.  The results of these policies are there for all to see; a UEFA Cup title and two Primera titles. And while it may be the case that the personnel at Liverpool are not suited to play in this manner, let’s give a manager known for his thoroughness and attention to detail a bit more time to see how the pieces fit together.

© Bill Urban 2004

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